For many Black Americans, Juneteenth is a day of celebration. Observed on June 19th, the holiday commemorates the day that the last slaves were freed in the United States in 1865 – two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln ordered their independence with the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Confederate army surrendered.
There is certainly a great deal to celebrate: liberation, centuries of strength and resilience, and significant cultural, artistic, and scientific achievement. But the day is also a reminder of the systemic oppression and relentless suffering the Black community has endured both in slavery and in freedom as well as countless broken promises of justice and equality.
Union General William T. Sherman’s plan to give newly-freed families “forty acres and a mule” was among the first and most significant promises made – and broken – to African Americans. As the Union army gradually took over Confederate territory, there was a question as to what freedom really meant for emancipated slaves. Without property, money, or an education, most did not have a clear or immediate path toward economic independence.
Sherman, it should be noted, was not an abolitionist, and the idea to redistribute land was not his own. Indeed, it was presented to Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton by a group of Black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, who told them, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land and turn it and till it by our own labor.”
Just four days later, on January 16, 1865, Sherman issued his Special Field Order 15, which commanded that 400,000 acres of property confiscated from Confederate landowners be redistributed to Black families in 40 acre plots. By June, the land had been allocated to 40,000 of a total of 4 million freed slaves. (Mules were not included in the order, but the Union army did give some away as part of the effort.)
But the order was short-lived. President Andrew Johnson – who had owned slaves and publicly shared his beliefs of white supremacy – overturned the order before the end of the year and returned the land to the slaveowners and traitors who had originally owned it. The long-term financial implications of this reversal is staggering; by some estimates, the value of 40 acres and mule for those 40,000 freed slaves would be worth $640 billion today.
Again landless and in need of income, many former slaves were forced into sharecropping, a form of indentured servitude in which a landowner rents out plots of land to laborers in exchange for a portion of the crops produced. In addition to providing land, landowners often also extended credit to the sharecroppers to purchase materials like seeds and fertilizer from them. Typically, this arrangement was only marginally better than slavery; landowners were known to charge unfairly high interest rates and intentionally underpay sharecroppers, keeping them in an endless cycle of debt and poverty.
Despite substantial hurdles, Black Americans still managed to acquire 15 million acres of land by 1910, much of which was used for agricultural purposes. At the peak in 1920, Black families owned and operated upwards of a million farms – about 14 percent of all farms at the time. The ability to grow crops and raise livestock afforded Black families not just food and financial security but also the opportunity for upward mobility.
This, too, was short-lived. Over the past century, Black farmers lost most of that land, leaving just 45,500 operators with a mere .52 percent of American farmland in 2017. Industrialization, which lured Americans of all races away from rural areas and into cities for better opportunities, is partly to blame. But there were other factors at play.
For one, most early Black landowners did not have legally-binding wills, largely because they did not trust the legal system. Instead, they passed their land down to their next of kin without a clear title as “heirs’ property.” This kind of land ownership makes the owner ineligible for a mortgage, home improvement loans, disaster relief, or most U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs. Lacking access to financial resources, many heirs’ property owners either aren’t able to use their land or can’t afford to hold onto it. After several generations, heirs’ property can be inherited by many distant family members, which is a legal and logistical headache. With multiple landowners who may not know each other, the possibility of unpaid taxes and, consequently, foreclosure is relatively high. Additionally, any individual owner can auction off their portion without consulting the other property owners. Knowing this, speculators and developers often coerce family members who have never even seen the property into selling their share for less than market value.
If that weren’t enough, Black farmers have also been subject to systemic discrimination by USDA, other government agencies, and private lending institutions. As a result, they lacked access to loans, crop insurance, technical assistance, market opportunities, and other critical resources made available to other farmers. This put Black farmers at a disadvantage and undermined professional success, forcing many to leave the industry.
The loss of land, whether to heirs’ property, discrimination, or other causes, has deprived the Black community of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of wealth and contributed significantly to modern racial economic inequality. Today, the average net worth of a Black family is only one-tenth that of a white family. A similar gap exists in agriculture: the average Black farmer’s net farm income is just 14 percent that of their white counterpart.
Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 is just one of many promises we have failed to keep to Black citizens since emancipation, and land loss is just one of the injustices they have endured as a result. As a society, we have pledged our commitment to ensuring that Black citizens are treated equitably in our criminal justice, education, health care, housing, and employment systems, yet we have fallen short on every count. Following weeks of protests against policy brutality and other forms of racism, lawmakers, corporations, and individuals have renewed previous promises and made new ones. This Juneteenth, it’s time we finally keep them.
By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Director
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